Dr. Lambert walked into the consultation room to meet with Mr. Jones’ family. “I’m sorry, the news isn’t good. Your Dad won’t be back.”
“But can’t we do something else?” Susan begged the doctor, “There MUST be something more…” her voice faded as she fought back the emotion of the moment.
“We’ve done everything we can…”
“But what if he rallies?” Mark interrupted, “it’s possible, right?”
Having pushed for the right answer in family consultations before, Dr. Lambert knew it wouldn’t help to be logical or forceful. He’d seen hundreds of cases where the ventilator kept a loved one “alive” for days, weeks, months, even years. The family had to get there on their own time. But, how could he help?
“What if we leave your dad on the ventilator another week and see what happens?” Dr. Lambert proposed.
After a silent pause, the question’s liberating power began to work. No longer needing to fight, the question set the family free to engage and to explore as Susan asked, “What does that mean?”
“How long could he be kept alive?” Mark asked.
Staring into the face of a difficult reality felt like a ravenous bear chasing Mark and Susan. They needed a way to de-claw and de-fang its emotional threat. The ability and willingness to pursue the truth was made possible with the skillful use of an open-ended question, “What if…?”
Only three options
It’s natural to shift into survival mode when you feel threatened. It can happen at work, home, school, or hangin’ out in town. Yes, even when no real bear is chasing you for supper fear kicks in.
Think about this. When was the last time you wanted to be told what to do? Two years old, right? No? Surely during your teen years you remember begging to be told what to do. Wrong? Maybe in those early adult decades when you began to realize you didn’t know it all, after all. Right?
Intelligent, talented, capable people resist being told what to do. You naturally re-coil against the communication strategy that feels like manipulation or domination by someone trying to control you, with or without authority.
- Some of us push back and have the “bring it on” attitude.
- Some people are looking for a fight. Go ahead, make my day.
- Others withdraw, retreat, tuck and run … at least from the teller. Often they run to a safe place where they “vent” about it to a sympathetic ear. Or yes, just bury it, again.
Clearly, neither option leads to effective communication. It’s learning to “stay and engage” that leads to breakthroughs.
Opening communication lines
The secret to open dialog is to create space with skillful, open-ended questions. An open-ended question cannot be answered with yes or no.
It begins with how you frame your question. You’ve got choices: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why – if you’re careful with your tone of voice. And when you want to propose a solution or idea, there’s nothing like: What if…?
When emotions are high, fear jumps on you like a bear. It’s threat to your control or plans makes it easy for you to lose self-control. Who communicates well when irrational or emotionally out-of-control?
You need space to think. Yes, that could mean, “Lets talk about this later.” But the brilliance of an open-ended question is that it immediately creates space. It slows things down. The bear stops chasing you. You have the choice to release control and the ability to seek influence. It’s awesome.
Create Space for Reflection
Consider the difference Dr. Lambert’s question made in that family’s difficult moment. He had influence while allowing them to make the decision.
This week, watch for opportunities to use open ended questions. If you’re used to “telling,” it will take practice and time to make this a new habit. But the rewards will be an increase in your personal influence with others, and freedom from the fear of bears.
What will it take for you to begin?
Here’s to your ability to engage others,
Photo credit DWRose